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TJ Williamson is the founder and host of the World Tea Podcast. His podcast has helped bring the tea community together and has addressed many issues and interesting topics in the tea world in a fun and lighthearted way. He continues to innovate and expand and now has a YouTube channel and blog built around his passion for tea and tea culture. His tea sample service, 5ample Gram, brings tea samples to people who are interested in very unique teas but who aren’t looking to invest heavily right away.

Connor: What originally led you to tea in the first place?

TJ: I believe my origin story is similar to many others; I grew up with the teabag and thought nothing of it. I believe I would continue to think little of tea if it weren’t for my love of skiing and being witness to a revelation that would spark my curiosity.

You see, my mother used to work in the cafeteria of the local ski resort. It was here I would have my lunch when my lessons were over, among tray covered tables and loudly talking patrons. As with any ski resort worth its snow, there were a lot of tourists who came from the surrounding cities to test the slopes. And as fortune would have it, many of these tourists were from the growing Chinese communities. In fact, one of my best instructors was a man from Hong Kong named Jack, and if you’re in need of a lesson, let me know so I can put you in touch.

Regardless of my alpine prowess, it would seem that the management was becoming increasingly upset at the lack of beverage sales. Turns out, many of the patrons were bringing their own tea to brew and skipping the teabags that lined the cafeteria counter. It was overhearing this discussion, between the manager and his staff, that I heard the words “Green Tea” for the first time. I still remember the confusion of this term. And to answer your question, I believe this confusion is what led me to further discover tea.

Discuss the reasons for the creation of the world tea podcast

I graduated post-secondary in 2013 with a major in International Trade. From here I found work in the customs brokerage department of a familiar courier company. Day in and day out I would process the paperwork, calculate taxes, and assign duties to all the goods imported into Canada. Heck, if anyone from Canada is reading this article and has ordered something online, chances are I was responsible for that extra $50 you suddenly had to pay. To make a story short, it was a very boring position to find myself in after travelling Japan and Korea.

To remedy this wall of ennui, I found solace in podcasts. Music becomes repetitive very quickly, but a well edited podcast is capable of so much. NPR, 99%, Hardcore History, Limited Resources, these were what got me through a day. And then it dawned on me….I’ve lived on a tea farm, I love tea, why am I not listening to a podcast on tea? A quick search revealed a very minimal and poor selection. Series were months if not years old and had seemingly been abandoned. Many were very short (I was accustomed to 30min-60min podcasts). It seemed as if I would never get to hear an episode on tea. So I decided to make my own. Why not? I didn’t have many other hobbies at the time, there was an open market, and I was more than capable of talking into a microphone. So that’s what I did.

Discuss the difficulties you have faced with your podcast.

On second thought, mentioning above that “talking into a microphone” and alluding to some sort of simplicity was misleading. There were mountains of difficulties to overcome, and many didn’t even appear on the horizon until I walked right into them.

First you need a host, someone to store your files on their server so that you can embed the code into your website. Oh, there are plenty of them out there, but it comes down to how much you want to pay and the benefits you’re looking for (metrics, bandwidth, player style, etc). I’ll admit, I knew very little and simply opted for the most basic packages to start. A lot of research followed. A lot of time was spent reading forums, listening to other podcasts, and compiling notes.

Next, as any blogger will know, is the website. Who is going to host that? Should you purchase your own domain name? Oh, and all of this costs money. Sure you could do it for free, but I was ambitious and wanted something to call my own. So I went with Tumblr. The reasoning was simple, WordPress was too complicated at the time and I didn’t want to bother with maintaining a website when I needed that time to focus on the podcast. I eventually transferred to WordPress and now to Squarespace, all in the course of a few years. As it stands I’m very happy with my current site as the integration with SoundCloud (the host of my Podcast) makes things very easy.

In regards to the podcast itself, the content will drive you crazy. Sure there are a lot, but having to create a list of ideas is often akin to sitting in a room alone and coming up with alternative names for the color blue. You constantly need to be engaging the community, reading forums, and searching for ideas or issues that can evolve into a 30-60min conversation. I’ve found mental fatigue to be a real thing.

And I haven’t even mentioned the equipment. Audio is a very important medium. Any YouTuber will tell you that you can have terrible video, but you must have great audio. Recording for an hour on your computer microphone and finding out it’s unsalvageable garbage. Yeah, that’s happened and it sucks. For the love of all that is holy, you need a proper external microphone. I’ve invested in several over the years and I’m still not 100% satisfied, but they do their job and for that I’m content. Fortunately there are some great (and free) audio editing tools out there which I’m more than happy to have available to me.

Discuss the best aspects of being a podcaster and blogger.

For some reason I’m finding this a difficult question to answer. I want to say seeing and meeting the wonderful tea community and the access you get for providing your content. Many bloggers, including myself, receive media passes to expos which get you into these events for free. It’s a great benefit, but you are there to work, and leaving with a notebook full of scribbles or several SD cards of data is not out of the norm.

But there is also a sense of respect you get from vendors, retailers, and the community from your title as a blogger. I don’t want to come across as pretentious or arrogant, but there is a difference in the tone of a conversation when a vendor talks to a blogger versus a passerby. It’s common to taste a “hidden” tea or something from a vendors “private stash”. Of course, some people couldn’t care less that I’m there to record a conversation.

Giving myself some time to ponder this question, I honestly can say that the rare email I receive from someone who’s listened to my podcast and took the time to thank me and offer a few words of encouragement is the best aspect. They make you genuinely smile.

Being in Canada, where do you see the Canadian tea industry and culture in the future?

I first need to drive home the point that Canada’s population is smaller than all of California’s. We don’t have a lot of people up here. We’re also incredibly spread out, having several small towns kilometers away from one another is especially commonplace. If I want to go to Toronto, it takes me two hours to get there.

From this, and my experience, it’s the cities that will develop (their tea culture) faster. The interest in the industry is strong and there are more and more tea companies starting to develop every year. This is very good to see! I’m all for the entrepreneur. However, I strongly advocate studying tea for several years prior to opening shop. Tea, to those who haven’t studied it, comes across as a simple product. I don’t believe people understand the complexity of the product and this worries me.

I’d say I fear for the culture of tea, but then I’d have to admit my preference for straight tea over blends and that is a conversation for another day, or podcast! Ultimately, Canada is going to develop and grow its own tea culture. Canada is not China. Canada is not the USA. Canada is not Japan. Canada is not India. Canada is a piece of all of them combined. Canada is a blend. And if I were a betting man, I’d say those are the teas that will grow Canada’s tea culture.

What is the goal/mission of the World Tea podcast?

The World Tea Podcast has, since its inception, been about tea’s culture and technology. I’ve started to dabble in tea reviews, I can count the number of them on my hand and honestly I’m not a fan of doing them. They take much too long to do, especially since I make them as videos for my YouTube channel. I think, moving forward, I’ll keep with my original objective: providing people with a quality podcast about tea. Talking about the cultures that developed it and are continuing to develop. Conversing with industry personnel to hear their opinions and views on the business. And examining the growing technology within the world of tea, seeing its impact, and how this relates to the industry as a whole and on a personal level.

Where do you see the World Tea podcast in the future?

I’m currently back in University and so I’ve limited my goals to more manageable and realistic ones for the next year as I finish my studies. I’d love to keep putting out a combination of four videos or podcasts per month. Of course, getting content and editing the material is extremely time-consuming, so I have to be careful in what I decide to do.

Long term? I’d love to get more series of podcasts. Last year I recorded the “5 Tastes of Tea” series which has had success. I’m currently working on a “Tea Defined” series where I’ll be talking in-depth about all the types of tea. Japan’s Green Tea just launched on the 18th of January, so I’m happy to have begun. Hopefully by the end of the year I can have an episode dedicated to each type of tea.

What changes, if any would you like to see in the tea industry?

I’m going to steal this question and make it into a podcast! Okay, without opening a can of worms:

  • More transparency of the product’s origin and manufacture from retailers
  • More education of retailers and then of customers
  • Less romanticism and mysticism surrounding tea as a product
  • More scientific research into tea (production, processing, benefits, etc)

That should be a good list to start. There are many changes I believe should happen. But these all happen slowly and there are many layers to each issue I’ve raised. Time will tell.

What inspires you to continue your podcast?

It’s a hobby that I’ve turned into a lifestyle. It’s part of who I am now. My interest is tea, and that is a direction I love to follow and pursue. As the interest in tea grows, more people are going to ask questions. I hope that my podcast will be there for them when they begin their journey.

Just for fun, if you could only drink one tea for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

How did I know this question would be asked? I’ll say Hojicha. And that’s because the aroma brings me right back to the tea fields in Japan. That distinct roasted perfume and taste, I can’t fathom being without. If I can relive those memories along with a delicious cup of tea, count me in.